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An Asylum Seeker Caught In Trump’s ‘Remain In Mexico’ Tells His Story

An illustration depicting a bridge over a concrete riverbed, with a Mexican flag to the left and an American flag to the right.
An illustration of the U.S.-Mexico border by Jhonaikel Vielma Belandria, drawn while he was waiting in Tijuana.
(Courtesy Jhonaikel Vielma Belandria)
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In April 2019, a weary Jhonaikel Vielma Belandria arrived in Tijuana, ready to present himself for political asylum at the U.S-Mexico border crossing.

He'd made his way up from Venezuela, where as a college student he’d joined demonstrations against the repressive government of president Nicolás Maduro.

An Asylum Seeker Caught In Trump’s ‘Remain In Mexico’ Tells His Story

His activism eventually led to trouble, according to Vielma, 27, who said he got threatening visits from pro-government paramilitaries. That led to his decision to flee the country.

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First stop Guatemala, then Tijuana

He made it first to Guatemala, where he stayed a while and worked, then continued on to Tijuana. Once there, he went to the border crossing at San Ysidro, expecting that he’d present himself for asylum and speak with a U.S. border official.

Instead, he said, he was given a number and told he would have to wait in Tijuana, a process used by U.S. officials in recent years, now discontinued, known as “metering.” His turn would come up in four months.

“I nearly fainted,” Vielma said, because I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t wait four months, I only have 50 Mexican pesos in my pocket.’ That’s like $2.50.”

Volunteers at a drop-in center for migrants near the border crossing referred him to a migrant shelter. There Vielma waited, doing chores like cooking and helping other migrants in exchange for a roof and meals.

An asylum interview in San Diego

In August 2019, he said, he got his asylum interview with an immigration official at the border and was given a date to appear in immigration court in San Diego.

But then, Vielma was sent back to Tijuana.

“They told me that I had to wait for my court date,” he said.And so began my asylum case, but not in the United States territory — that is the curious thing.”

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Vielma had become caught up in what’s known as “Remain in Mexico,” one of the Trump administration’s hardline policies aimed at blocking asylum seekers.

Understanding Remain in Mexico

Starting in early 2019, not long before Vielma arrived in Tijuana, the administration implemented the policy, formally called Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP, as a growing number of asylum seekers from Central American and other Latin American countries made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The program forced thousands of asylum seekers who were not from Mexico to stay there, often in dangerous and inhumane conditions, as they were shuttled back and forth across the border to immigration court hearings.

Pop-up tents have flags hangin as makeshift walls
Asylum seekers at a Tijuana migrant shelter in 2018.
(Peggy Peattie for LAist)

The whole thing was disorienting, said Vielma, who had thought he’d pursue asylum from within the United States, as it had typically worked before. He described having to stay in Tijuana while pursuing asylum in the U.S. as “very complicated, psychologically, for anyone.”

He described having to show up at 5 or 6 a.m. with dozens of other asylum seekers to get on a shuttle bus that would take them to court across the border.

The process took all day, Vielma said, as people waited for their hearings. He said the judge would ask if anyone was afraid to return to Mexico. Vielma regrets having said yes. He said he was sent to wait in a chilly holding cell that some migrants refer to as hieleras, or iceboxes.

“If you responded yes, they would detain you for three days in the hielera,” he said, “so that they could interview you — which served no purpose, because they would just send you back to Mexico again.”

Staying in the hieleras “was like torture,” he said. “You slept on this small rubber bed, like one inch thick, with aluminum thermal paper [for blankets]. This happened to me three times.”

The risks for migrants

Vielma had reason to be afraid of returning to Tijuana. Foreign asylum seekers stranded in Mexico’s border cities have been assaulted, kidnapped and raped, and some have been killed. Once, when Vielma was helping out at the migrant drop-in center that had assisted him early on, he saw two men who he thinks may have been smugglers violently beating a fellow migrant just outside.

“They were telling him, ‘You know what you did? Don’t do it again, don’t do it again, I don’t want to see you here!’” said Vielma, who was rattled by the incident. “I didn’t see him again, they took him. They grabbed him by his flannel [shirt] and they took him.”

An illustration depicts a glass of water reflecting its backdrop, a brown fence, i.e. the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
An illustration depicting the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
(Courtesy of Jhonaikel Vielma Belandria)

Violence against migrants is one reason why most of the tens of thousands of people enrolled in the Remain in Mexico program dropped out over time; immigrant advocates say only a small fraction remain in the program.

Carl Bergquist, general counsel for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said for this reason, the wind-down of the program can’t happen fast enough.

“They are at risk,” Bergquist said. “That’s why we're really asking the administration every day … to disenroll these individuals and let them enter the United States as soon as possible.”

The Biden administration’s initial attempt to end Remain in Mexico was met with a lawsuit by GOP-led states that succeeded, leading to a “2.0” reinstated version of the program that sent thousands more to wait in Mexican border cities.

Eventually the administration prevailed in the Supreme Court, and Biden formally ended Remain in Mexico in August.

The asylum seekers are gradually being allowed into the U.S. under humanitarian parole as their court dates come up. Between Aug. 9 and Sept. 29, more than 1,500 people were disenrolled from the program and paroled into the U.S to continue their court proceedings, according to Homeland Security officials.

But many are still waiting, Bergquist said.

Stranded: ‘They want for you to give up’

Vielma got in sooner than many others: After three cross-border court hearings, he was ordered deported in late 2019 and placed in detention. But Venezuela wouldn’t take him back; he said officials attempted to send him to Guatemala as a “safe third country” but that didn’t happen, either.

After some months in a San Diego detention center, he was released with an ankle monitor in the spring of 2020. He’s now living in Moreno Valley with relatives, and his asylum case has been reopened.

Vielma said the overall experience wore him down — but he’s glad he didn’t give up. He’s glad to have had the help of volunteers in Tijuana who eventually found him housing so he could get out of the shelter, at least for a while.

If he gets to say, he said, he’ll go back to school to finish his architecture studies and pursue his painting and drawing, something he said gave him an outlet during the year he spent between waiting in Tijuana and in detention.

A man with dark hair is shown from waist up wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt.
Jhonaikel Vielma Belandria.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
LAist )

“They want for you to give up,” Vielma said, “but I think that first they’ll get tired, before the need that human beings have to find a better life.”

What's going on now

Other Venezuelans arriving at the border now may not have the same chance that Vielma did. Under a Biden administration policy that took effect last month, most Venezuelan asylum seekers who arrive by land are being turned back; only a small number of Venezuelans will be allowed to come temporarily by air. 

Biden has expanded another Trump border policy known as Title 42 — which the administration initially tried to end until GOP-led states sued — to expel these Venezuelan migrants to Mexico.

Far more stringent than Remain in Mexico, Title 42 was issued as a public health order in early 2020, ostensibly to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It has led to an estimated 2 million-plus rapid expulsions of asylum seekers and other migrants to Mexico or their home countries with no chance of asylum; officers may use discretion to make exceptions for certain vulnerable migrants, and unaccompanied minors are exempted. Many of those expelled so far have been from Mexico and Central America; many Haitians were also sent back by plane.

For now, that policy remains in place.

And even though Biden has ended the Remain in Mexico policy, its backers are not giving up. Texas and Missouri went back to court in August in hopes of reinstating it.

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